When Leslie Marmon Silko opens Ceremony with the invocation, “I will tell you something about stories, they aren’t just entertainment,” she marks a key distinction of “teaching-narrative,” a compound noun for a particular kind of performance text (similar to teaching-stories used by Idries Shah). I was not really attracted to storytelling until around mid-life when I experienced the phenomenon in the presence of Gioia Timpanelli. All narrative text that went before had been comparatively one-dimensional: entertainment, instruction, or preaching (rhetorical). Story in each of these categories, whether told or read, certainly has value; but when the text is translated as teaching-narrative, a special and distinctive quality imbues the work.
Gioia’s live translations of Arthurian legend, Grimms tales, and other traditional lore compelled me to return many times to Robert Bly’s summer conference where she was the featured storyteller. After the conference, I’d transcribe her telling, word for word, from tapes of the conference to see how she interwove the story line with her “asides” that opened the teaching of the narrative. A third step involved telling my way into teaching-narrative through at least a decade of dedicated practice.
My immersion in teaching-narrative was also guided by archetypal criticism, especially in seminars led by analyst Tom Peterson combined with study of Jung, von Franz, and others. Disclosure of credits must also include the teaching stories of Rumi, Idries Shah, and other gnostics. My capacity to articulate the dynamic of teaching-narrative also advanced through the opportunity to enact and to make sense of four-track story (as explicated by Brian Boyd in Origin of Stories) to undergraduates and graduate students at the University of Maryland and with colleagues in the National Writing Project.
Because teaching-narrative is best known in articulated experience (cf, E. Gendlin; S. Perl’s Felt Sense), these words offer only an approximation. What’s needed is a bridge between raw experience and overly wordy education. Workshops do this better than direct instruction.
For example, in our University of Maryland Writing Project’s Summer Institute 2012, my Teacher Inquiry Workshop engaged us in “nonsense tales.” Although this sub-genre of story has been noted for a long time, our age of disillusion seems to be particularly ripe for consideration of translating nonsense into meaning. The Workshop begins with an overview of Boyd’s four levels of explanation that enable our capacity to “turn ideas around through a possibility space enlarged by the dimensions of the hypothetical and the counterfactual.” Following the introduction, we move quickly into the experience of two oral narratives: Lazy Jack & Epaminondas. Each telling was followed by our noting of “hits,” particularly by sketching a resonant image and recording words that called out of memory.
In retrospect, I’m aware that I left the story text relatively un-elaborated; I hadn’t added the Gioia-style asides that I often do in the practice of teaching-narrative. For example, when I tell the “Water of Life,” I often step outside the story line to layer the archetypal superstructure of the missing feminine (Queen & Princess) and the dying masculine (King & older Princes). Perhaps I wanted to see how we would manage with the opportunity provided by two similar story lines representing the same thread of the “noodle-head” who acts in a “simple-minded” (literal replication of directions) with significant consequences. The two variants show opposite directions in the consequences, one extremely positive and the other seriously negative.
Responses to the workshop evidenced significant turning of nonsense into meaning. Megan Callow commented:
Today I learned from the Jack and Epaminondas tales that adults do not bother to see the world from the perspective of children. As I wrote in my Level 4 writing, “Kids spends a lot of time wandering the earth in confusion, often eager to please. And adults, whether consciously or not, exploit that confusion. They forget what it’s like to be learning the world anew. There is a strong cultural fear of being child-like, I think, so adults avoid it at all costs, even at the expense of the kid, who is just doing to best he can to get along. The best he can, that is, until he realizes that the world is an exclusive club that does not want him as a member.” This was a hugely insightful moment for me as a teacher; it was a reminder to NOT fear the child-like. And as the young sailor reminded me in her own terminology (water, boating, the place between land and sea), this visceral, child-like wonder is the real way to knowing.